Brexit will continue! That’s the big news out of Wednesday’s summit in Brussels, which marked the beginning of a new phase in the United Kingdom’s tortured efforts to extricate itself from the European Union. The question for the last few days has been whether this would be the “short” extension Theresa May asked for or a “long” one of nine to 12 months that European leaders increasingly felt was necessary. It ended up being a sort of medium one: The new Brexit date is Oct. 31, six months from now.
Throw out your flowcharts—there are no maps for where we’re headed now.
Today’s summit: May flew to Brussels on Wednesday to ask for a delay of the April 12 Brexit deadline. This date was itself an extension of the original March 29 deadline.
In her address to leaders of the other 27 EU member states, May asked for an extension until June 30, the last possible date that Britain could leave without participating in the upcoming EU parliament elections. That date had already been more or less rejected before May got on the plane, and May signaled on her arrival that she would be open to a longer “flextension” that gives her plenty of time to get her controversial withdrawal agreement through Parliament and enables Britain to leave immediately after that happens.
After May made her case, she had to leave the room while the other leaders ate scallops and judged her performance. They were reportedly not convinced by her assurances that she was making enough progress in cross-party talks with Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn to pass her agreement by May.
Most leaders favored a long extension, but France’s Emmanuel Macron, doing his best Henry Fonda impression, argued to the other 26 leaders in the room that the extension should be short to get Brexit over with. Worried that a half-in-half-out Britain would act as a spoiler in the coming months, the French wanted language in the final agreement specifying that Britain would “uphold the rules and behave as an EU member.”
In the end, six months was reached as a compromise. Brexit could still happen earlier if May can get her agreement passed through parliament. European Council President Donald Tusk also did not rule out a further extension in October, so we might have to do this all again.
Despite the growing frustrations with the British, the potential impact of a “no-deal” Brexit on Britain’s trading partners—Germany alone could lose up to 100,000 jobs, according to one study—as well as the fears associated with a hard border in Ireland, made it worth giving the Brits a little more time to figure this out.
Today’s WTF happens now?: The declaration coming out of the summit leaves the U.K. with the same three options it’s had for some time now. Parliament can pass May’s withdrawal agreement, which it’s now rejected three times. It can leave the EU without a deal. Or it can revoke Brexit entirely.
May is still hoping she can get the first option done by May 22—the day before EU elections—and will continue talks with Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn to try to make it happen.
Labour wants the government to seek a permanent customs union with Europe in order to avoid trade disruptions and keep the Irish border open. That demand got a boost today when Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said that the UK could have some say in external trade deals with other countries as a member of the customs union, but the customs union is still reportedly a red line for May and is bitterly opposed by Brexiteers. With the clock now reset, there will also likely be increasing pressure from newly emboldened remainers to hold a new referendum, or “people’s vote,” although there wouldn’t be much time to organize it.
A no-deal Brexit still isn’t completely off the table, but right now, it’s looking pretty unlikely.
Today’s power struggle: Just in time for the return of Game of Thrones, the scheming of who will succeed May has begun.
The prime minister lost the support of most of her party over her failure to deliver Brexit on time—her extension request was approved thanks to votes from Labour—and the Conservative Party is likely to take a beating in local elections on May 2. Unfortunately for the Tories, they’re stuck with her: May survived a party no-confidence vote in December, which means they can’t hold another one until this December, after the current Brexit deadline.
But May won’t necessarily stick it out that long. She told Parliament several weeks ago that “as prime minister, I am not prepared to delay Brexit any further than 30 June,” indicating she would step down if it takes longer than that. She also might step down after the May 2 elections. In Brussels on Wednesday, she refused to answer when asked by the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg whether she would stay on as prime minister if she couldn’t deliver Brexit by June.
If she can actually reach a deal with Corbyn to pass the withdrawal agreement, she might resign after that. After all, she offered in March to step down if Parliament passed her agreement, although that was under much different circumstances, and it’s not clear whether the offer still stands.
When May eventually steps down, whether on her own or under pressure, at least 12 ministers are poised to jockey for her job, with frontrunners such as former foreign secretary and arch-Brexiteer Boris Johnson, Home Secretary Sajid Javid, and former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab.
Today in levity: Angela Merkel gets some laughs from May and Donald Tusk with a photo on her iPad:
Turns out it was a weird German joke about the resemblance of their jackets.
Days until next deadline: 205
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